The nation’s top pork is raised right here
Stan Schutte looks like a typical central Illinois farmer, with his buzz haircut and weather-beaten face. On hot days at Wednesday’s Old State Capitol Farmers Market, he’s probably wearing his battered straw hat. He sounds like an archetypal central Illinois farmer, too, with a bit of drawl and occasional grammar faux pas.
But if you listen to what he’s saying and purchase his products, you’ll realize that Schutte’s Triple S Farm is about as far from the conventional monoculture (a.k.a. soybeans and corn) farms surrounding his farm near Effingham as possible.
Schutte uses organic and sustainable farming practices, and primarily sells poultry, pork and beef. As such, he’s received local, national and even international recognition. In 2006, the Midwest Organic Sustainable Education Service named him Organic Farmer of the Year. That same year Joel Smith, Midwest Governor of Slow Food USA took Schutte to Terra Madre, a biannual, international Slow Food conference held in Turin, Italy, that’sabout preserving gastronomic traditions and foods; and restoring sustainable agriculture in ways that are viable for farmers (i.e. provides them a living wage) and consumers (i.e. affordable for everyone). In 2008, Schutte’s son, Ryan, was sent to Turin. Then a UIUC agriculture student, Ryan now farms with his dad.
Last month, Shutte garnered another major award: In dishes created by Jason Vincent, chef of Chicago’s Nightwood restaurant, Schutte’s heritage breed Tamworth pork bested 49 other competitors from across the U.S. to win the Cochon 555 title, “King of Porc.” (Vincent wore the crown.) Incidentally, “porc” is the French spelling of pork. The event was held in Aspen, Colo., in conjunction with the annual Food and Wine Classic, a 30-year-old festival that’s become the biggest annual culinary event in America.
Cochon 555 is relatively new; this was its fourth competition. It’s not a single event. The Cochon tour begins in January, traveling to 10 different locations across America, from L.A., San Francisco, and Napa Valley to Boston, New York and Atlanta.
At each venue, the Cochon organization selects five area chefs and pairs them with five local farmers who raise five different breeds of heritage pigs. The winner of each local contest goes on to Aspen to compete for the national prize. Schutte’s pork and Jason Vincent took the top Chicago honors against stiff competition, including Stephanie Izard, the first – and still only – woman to become “Top Chef” on the television series of the same name.
Cochon is the brainchild of Taste Network’s Brady Lowe. Most consumers don’t understand or appreciate the importance – and flavor – of heritage pork breeds, Lowe believes.
Realizing the struggles farmers have to keep their family farms alive and thriving; that the best chefs want to source exceptional foodstuffs; and that lots of ordinary folks want to know what they’re eating and how it’s been raised, Lowe boiled it down to a single idea, an “ultimate quest for content and flavor.” Lowe decided that the best way to “increase awareness of the sources that support a more natural, sustainable food system ... is through unique culinary experiences.” As the Cochon website says:
“The Cochon tour is a journey that… food lovers will want to join, like touring with your favorite band, watching new artists take the stage to showcase their own riffs on pork, and eating your heart out while the band just plays flavor all night long….
It’s not just farm to table that matters – it’s what happens in between, the how and where, the history of what we eat. More and more of us want to skip the processing and get our foods straight from the pasture but we don’t always know how to get it, where to look, or what to ask for. The epicurean audience at every Cochon 555 event enjoys a direct link to the sources, a chance to learn from food experts.”
Although he sells to several Chicago-area chefs, Schutte hadn’t heard of Jason Vincent or Nightwood, which is just three years old. But Smith assured Schutte that his pork was in good hands. I’d have told him the same thing: I’d eaten at Nightwood for the first time in April; it was an incredibly wonderful meal.
For each regional Cochon competition, five chefs create five dishes each. But in Aspen, space considerations dictate that the 10 chef-finalists make just three. Vincent recreated his three favorite winning Chicago offerings: a bacon-butterscotch doughnut served with a soft-boiled scrambled egg, “hollandoink” sauce, and a Bloody Mary on the bone; a liver chip; and his take on a Spanish-style pork and vegetable stew, cocido.
How do the Cochon folks decide who’ll be the chefs and farmers in the competition? That’s closely held information. But in Schutte’s case, it also included a fair amount of persistence.
“As soon as I heard about Cochon 555, I went to its website, and watched it at least five times that night. All I could think of is ‘That’s me – I’ve got to get involved’” Schutte says. After many phone calls and emails, he did.
It’s Schutte’s persistence and willingness to try something new, and his success in converting his family’s farm into a viable business that’s earned him the respect of sustainable agriculture advocates.
It was the devastation of family farms for want of a decent living that made Schutte turn to organic and sustainable farming.
“Ironically, my dad was very progressive in the 40s and 50s, using chemicals for weed and insect control,” Schutte says. “By the 60s and 70s, we were one of the biggest farms around.”
Schutte’s dad died, and by the 90s, the effects of Nixon agriculture secretary Earl Butz’s stated policy of “Get big or get out” were taking hold. Even moderately large farms such as Schutte’s couldn’t keep up.
“I had to get a factory job to pay just the interest on a $100,000 note for buying equipment,” Schutte says.
Schutte points to the ’97 “hog [price] crash.” I don’t remember it, nor probably does anyone not involved in agriculture. But for Schutte it was a seminal moment. “I broke down and cried,” he says. “I realized that something’s got to change. To keep farming, I had to do something different.”
The conversion was gradual. Schutte raised his first chickens in 1998. But he didn’t have a market for them, so “We ate most of ’em ourselves,” he says. Local farmers markets brought Schutte’s first signs of success. And at each location, Schutte initiated a buyers club, which became his “bread and butter.” For a small one-time fee, customers receive a discount on every purchase. And in winter, Schutte makes monthly deliveries to each city, ensuring that club members receive his products year-round.
Schutte’s innovative business approaches and willingness to try new things (including those heritage pork breeds) have become a model for others. But his methods would be meaningless if he didn’t combine them with sensitivity and sensibility. As Smith puts it:
“… his wife, Karen, (grudgingly) summed Stan up best, ‘He treats his animals better than he treats his own kids.’ When it comes to the animals, Stan has so much more native intelligence than most. Those smarts come from being an astute observer of nature and from a lifetime of farming experience – good and bad – that seems to have taught him that the best way to farm is to work with nature, instead of always fighting her. That transfers to how he works with his animals as valuable, important members of his farm's biological community. You get the sense that he sees them as proxies for the health of his entire farm, as well as sentinels of any problems.”
Contact Julianne Glatz at email@example.com.
Stan Schutte is at the Old State Capitol Farmers Market each Wednesday. To find out more about his products and buyers club, talk to him there or visit his website, www.triplesfarms.com.